Kat-ness, Evergreen

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: History Issue: June 2015
Group Free

Pioneering artist George Herriman put Coconino County on the comics-page map.

Thirty years before Woodstock made his maiden landing on Snoopy’s belly, a cat named Krazy was dodging bricks in a pioneering newspaper comic strip.

Published in papers from 1913 to 1944, Krazy Kat was based in Arizona and told the story of a star-crossed love triangle between its namesake free-spirited cat, a psychotically violent mouse and a control-freak of a police dog. Its creator, George Herriman, drew deep spiritual and artistic inspiration from the Diné (Navajo) Nation landscape and even placed his characters in Coconino County. Herriman made frequent visits to the region and peppered his cartoons with southwestern-flavored humor, surrealism and humanity. His critters cavort across backgrounds that mix reality with imagination: fantastic rock formations based on Monument Valley and the Enchanted Mesa. Adobe walls, blocky buttes, and scraggly scrub share Krazy’s cosmos with trees growing from pots and a moon shaped like a potato chip. The strip’s jagged panels and scratchy ink-lines seem to vibrate on the page. “There is a timeless beauty about Krazy Kat,” says New York-based comics historian and graphic designer Craig Yoe.

photo courtesy Philippe Ghielmetti; Portrait of George Herriman, circa 1935Today Herriman is acknowledged as “the first person of color to achieve prominence in cartooning,” says NAU journalism professor Martin D. Sommerness. Herriman’s sketchy style and surreal humor influenced several generations of comics artists, including Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, Walt Kelly (Pogo), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Patrick McDonnell (Mutts), Art Spiegelman (Maus), and Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz.

But the strip isn’t always easy to understand. Herriman referred to Krazy as “he” or “she” apparently at whim, “which was super-confusing to people,” says New Orleans-based journalist Michael Tisserand, who’s working on a biography of the artist. The psychological dynamics of the strip are sadomasochistic, adds Yoe: Krazy loves Ignatz Mouse; Ignatz hates Krazy and beans him/her with bricks; Krazy mistakes his nihilistic aggression for love; Offissa Pupp loves Krazy; jailing Ignatz is as close as he gets to expressing it. The strip evokes the Jazz Age but looks ahead to a different genre: “Ignatz was the first punk,” Yoe says.

Despite its deep influence, Krazy Kat was never the most popular strip, appearing in only 50 of William Randolph Hearst’s papers. Krazy didn’t help sell papers like Mutt and Jeff or The Katzenjammer Kids, making Hearst the unlikely champion of a loss-leader. But artists and intellectuals loved Krazy Kat. In 1924, influential critic Gilbert Seldes declared the strip “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today,” adding: “With those who hold that a comic strip cannot be a work of art I shall not traffic.” Ardent admirers down the years have included T. S. Eliot, Frank Capra, Jack Kerouac and E. E. Cummings, who penned the introduction to the first book of Krazy strips in 1946. “Krazy Kat…is the only original and authentic revolutionary protagonist,” Cummings wrote. “She has no fear – even of a mouse.”

It takes some (usually well-rewarded) effort to deconstruct Herriman’s “lengwidge.” Herriman, who lived in New York City for spells in the 1900s and 1910s, was deeply curious about America’s melting pot of cultures and languages, and mixes French, Spanish, Brooklynese, alliteration, puns and poetry in a way James Joyce might have envied. Krazy communicates with a sort of fractured Yiddish: “L’il morning’s glora, there him is – my kwest was not in wain.” Pupp sometimes speaks in histrionic poetics: “All the world beams with beauty, the skies are ashine with sheen – prettiness prevails – and yet he packs a mind stuffed with a dire dearth of dignity.”

Herriman was born in New Orleans in 1880, but when he was a child his family moved to Los Angeles – possibly to escape Southern segregation laws, Sommerness says. Of Creole descent, Herriman’s birth certificate lists him as “colored”; his death certificate, “Caucasian.” He passed for white, though his skin tone and aquiline features led friends to nickname him “the Greek.”

 

photo courtesy Krazy Kat: A Celebration of Sundays, Sunday Press, 2010; Krazy Kat comic published on August 13, 1939.Los Angeles’ proximity to Arizona helped facilitate Herriman’s fascination with the Arizona-Utah desert region. He may have been initially attracted to Arizona because “Coconino County” is just fun to say, Tisserand says. The New York Times called it “a mythical place” in Herriman’s obituary, and had to print a retraction. The region grew vital to his life and work, and places name-checked in Krazy include Monument Valley and its Mittens and Elephant’s Feet, Kayenta, Tusayan, Tuba City, Kaibito, the Painted Desert, the Enchanted Mesa and more.

 

With its jagged formations and ever-changing landscape, the region seems to be a key character in the strip. “I think it became his first home,” Tisserand says. Herriman spent long summers visiting hogans and patterning panel layouts after Diné rugs, Tisserand says, and tried to give back. He bought a movie projector for the Kayenta community and sent Tom Mix Western serials every week.

More than 100 years after the first Krazy Kat strip appeared, Herriman’s influence on pop culture continues. In 1999, The Comics Journal named Krazy Kat the best comic of the 20th century. Baby Boomers might remember ‘toon impresario (and future Yellow Submarine producer) Al Brodax’s 1963 animated Krazy features. MacArthur Fellow Jay Cantor’s 1988 Krazy Kat: A Novel in Five Panels, blends Herriman’s creations with Cold War-era nuclear anxieties. Krazy and Ignatz appeared on a 1995 U.S. postage stamp. Samuel L. Jackson wore a Krazy Kat T-shirt in Pulp Fiction. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. has Krazy and Ignatz tattooed on his right bicep.

Herriman died in 1944, and got the funeral he wanted: His ashes were spread across Monument Valley. Traces of his love for the region and its people linger – in gifts from Diné friends, including a rug with his name woven into it, and in drawings that Herriman turned out in generous numbers for friends and fans. Some of them are inscribed Ah-hah-lah’nih, an affectionate Diné greeting.

Hearst killed the strip immediately after Herriman’s death. He couldn’t bear to see anybody but Herriman draw it.

photo courtesy Krazy Kat: A Celebration of Sundays, Sunday Press, 2010; 1995 Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse postage stamp. The strip was one of 20 included in the U.S. Postal Service’s Comic Strip Classics commemorative stamp series.Let’s Go KRAZY
In recent years small comics presses and specialty publishers have brought decades’ worth of Krazy Kat and other Herriman works back into print. Some highlights:
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat: A Celebration of Sundays (Sunday Press, $100), edited by Patrick McDonnell and Peter Maresca. Reprints 135 of Herriman’s Sunday strips in their original sizes and colors.
Krazy Kat and the Art of George Herriman: A Celebration (Abrams, $29.95), edited and designed by Craig Yoe, is a generous helping of strip reprints and sketches Herriman made for friends, and includes appreciations by Bill Watterson, E. E. Cummings, Jay Cantor, Gilbert Seldes, and others.
Yoe also edited Krazy + Ignatz: Tiger Tea (Idea & Design, $9.91), a 1936 Herriman storyline that Yoe strongly suspects is about marijuana – still a timely topic, even beyond Coconino County.
Krazy + Ignatz: “At Last My Drim of Life Has Come True”: 1922-1924 ($24.99), edited by Bill Blackbeard, is one of more than a dozen compilations from Fantagraphics Books. This one includes three years of Krazy Kat, plus lesser-known Herriman works.